View Single Post
Old 04-05-2009, 11:13 PM   #21
Josh Reyer
Josh Reyer's Avatar
Location: Aichi-ken, Nagoya-shi
Join Date: Nov 2005
Posts: 644
Re: The etymology of Kote Gaeshi

At issue here seems to a fundamental misunderstanding. We divide the hand from the arm as two distinct body parts, but there's no reason why one must do that. That the 手 character is an ideograph of the hand and fingers doesn't mean it ever meant purely just that. It simply indicates the most distinctive feature of the whole body part.

Further, David Yap's info that 手 also refers to the whole arm in Chinese is quite relevant even from an etymological point of view. Body part words, being very commonly used, are extraordinarily stable. The words "hand", "wrist", "arm", "elbow", and "shoulder" mean the same that they did 1500 years ago when "English" was first born. And even further back, as evidenced by the German words "Hand", "Arm", "Ellbogen", and "Schulter", all perfectly corresponding with their English cognates.

That said, drawing comparisons from Chinese, particular Chinese characters, and Japanese is always dicey. In addition to the usual issues of linguistic drift due to time and culture, the use of Chinese characters in Japanese, while relatively standardized now, was for the longest time very ad hoc. Particularly when it comes to Chinese texts written by Japanese, you had people being taught (with varying degrees of success) how to read and write Chinese, without achieving functional, idiomatic fluency in the language. This is why many kanbun texts written by Japanese seem awkward and/or wrong to Chinese readers. And it's one reason why, for example, the Japanese word ude, meaning "arm" is written 腕, the Chinese word for wrist, and why hiji, meaning elbow, is written 肘, 肱, and 臂, which mean "elbow", "forearm" and "arm" in Chinese, respectively. The general meanings of Chinese were considered when matching orthography with lexicon, but not the historical etymologies of the characters themselves.

So, back to David Soroko's original question: why is "kote" written with "small" and "hand"? Because since way back, te in Japanese referred to the whole arm from shoulder to fingers. This is attested in the Man'yoshu collection of poems, which was compiled in the mid-700s AD. Possibly influenced by Chinese ideas of medicine and anatomy (and not so much by Chinese orthography). The word frequently used today to represent "arm", ude, is in all probability derived from te. Accordingly, the upper part of the te was called takate 高手, and the smaller, thinner part of the arm was called kote 小手.

Last edited by Josh Reyer : 04-05-2009 at 11:17 PM.

Josh Reyer

The lyf so short, the crafte so longe to lerne,
Th'assay so harde, so sharpe the conquerynge...
- Chaucer
  Reply With Quote